After years of reading adult fantasy, branching out into YA this year has exposed me to some truly fantastic work. And next on the list was the promising A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, an urban fantasy set in Portland that uses a fantastical storyline to explore contemporary injustice.
A Song Below Water follows two first-person protagonists who alternate perspective chapters. Tavia and Effie are teenage Black sisters living in an America that’s full of magical creatures but that mirrors many of the same injustices as real-world America. Most magical creatures take human form, but for unknown reasons, sirens only appear as Black women. It is, therefore, no coincidence that society has seized on the ugly aspects of the siren mythos to justify rampant discrimination, to the point that where “she was a siren” can be used to justify arguing that a homicide was really just self-defense. This is especially personal to our heroines, because not only are they Black women, but Tavia is a siren, keeping her identity secret in an attempt to protect herself. Effie, on the other hand, isn’t quite sure what she is–beyond a pretend mermaid in a Renaissance Faire–but she’s been plagued by odd visions for years after being the only survivor of a childhood game that turned her friends to stone.
For such a short book, A Song Below Water is paced a bit slower than I might’ve expected, with plenty of time spent on high school drama (and a lot of hair care) as Morrow sets the scene for the supernatural conflicts that serve as the centerpiece. Tavia and Effie’s stories are both compelling on their own, and they intertwine nicely, as the sisters seek to support the other in their journeys to understand themselves and struggle for justice in society. Tavia’s story closely echoes real-world disregard of Black lives, where slayings can be forgiven as long as the perpetrator was sufficiently afraid. Between the themes and some of the details (protests, social media activism, etc.), A Song Below Water feels much more firmly located in a real place and time than most urban fantasy.
Effie’s story, on the other hand, is mostly about sorting through her tragic past, with playmates immortalized in stone, a mother dead, a father absent, and grandparents who don’t want her digging into any of it. The mystery is interesting on its own–we know of several magical creatures, but none subject to the visions that plague her–but is even more so when you consider her likability as a character and the sheer number of interactions with people who seem to have something to hide. That said, the execution is a bit clunkier than Tavia’s storyline, with a few key reveals given away far in advance but so many other information threads that the rest of the storyline is disorienting as much as mysterious. It comes together nicely and interacts well with Tavia’s story, but the combination of confusion and time spent waiting for the other shoe to drop make it more of a mixed bag overall.
Overall, A Song Below Water packages strong social commentary with an excellent pair of friends and an intriguing supernatural mystery, but there were a few hitches in the execution and a little too much time spent on high school for me (although this may well work well enough for a reader who is actually a part of the intended audience). I still enjoyed it, and it’s definitely worth reading if it sounds like your sort of story. Also, despite some heavier themes, it’s remarkably clean, with no sexual content or cursing, which may make a difference for those on the younger side of the YA audience.
Recommended if you like: YA fantasy with strong social commentary, tight friendships.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.